Sunday, 21 June 2009

From the cold war to the coal war: Eight principles that can guide us out of the fossil era

Are there lessons to be learnt from the Cold War for those engaged in the Coal War? I think so.

This year it is twenty years ago since the cold war ended (in practice even if the formal declaration took a few years more). The political wave of change during 1989 began in Poland when Solidarity was legalized and allowed to participate in parliamentary election. It continued in Hungary where the parliament adopted legislation providing for multi-party parliamentary elections and a direct presidential election at the end of 1989 and Czechoslovakia experienced peaceful student demonstrations. The pictures from the wall might be the most famous from 1989, but the events in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary can easily be seen as the sparks that changed one of the most serious polarizations in modern time.

Twenty years later I visit Warsaw, Budapest and Prague during three days on the low carbon innovation tour. It was impossible for me to avoid reflecting on the similarities (and differences) between our current “war” on coal/climate change and the cold war.

Many have described the climate challenge as a war this time with outdated economic models/ideas, influential individuals and powerful companies on the one side and the planet, future generations and new smart solutions on the other side) and that we need a similar focus in order to avoid a climate catastrophe. There is a lot of truth in this, but we should also ask how the cold war was won and why the actual outcome was less positive than most people hoped for. After discussing with students and experts during the trip I have identified the following principles that might inspire those involved in the “coal war”.


1. Don’t let the people with marginal thinking and marginal solutions dominate
Today many so called “environmentalists”, researchers and climate experts are engaging on marginal issues in relation to climate change. This is not always bad, but in many cases it can actually be counter productive. By spending time on incremental issues resources are spent in field that are actually do not matter very much. Obviously certain processes are not suitable for a transformative agenda, but if that is not the case these should be avoided as much as possible. A lot of time and opportunities was lost during the cold war as many (especially in the “west”) focused on incremental improvements, as an end to repression seemed impossible and na├»ve. This principle is true for everyone, but environmental NGOs could probably benefit extra from reflection in this area. I’m working on a graph that provides an overview of how different groups have moved since Kyoto 1997 and will publish that in August/September.

2. Don’t see all the people on the other side as evil
Too much time is spent on demonizing the “Coal/fossil forces” in the same way as a “communists” was painted a collective evil. Instead of sweeping generalizations it is better to be very focused and talk about the individuals that are responsible for the agenda (in the coal war the CEOs, board members and ministers). These are people that have a responsibility and it is when their friends and families no longer will accept that they are destroying the planet that they will change (or cling less desperate to the power they have today). Within the fossil companies many people exist that see the need for a low carbon future and that are doing important work to promote this (my feeling is that many of these “intrapreneurs” are doing some of the most important work in preparing for a rapid shift towards a low carbon economy) or even more clear as they have more knowledge both about the problem and solutions than most people.

3. Dare to publish results that are challenging business as usual
Many experts and thinkers through time have hesitated to challenge the accepted “truths” of their time (people used to be afraid of the Church, now it is big corporations that many are afraid of criticize). The “fact” that growth is needed, that coal will be with us for many years so we need CCS, all climate measures must create new jobs, etc is nothing more than fossil thinking that assumes a “business as usual scenario”. Many organizations need to be better to separate strategy from tactics. Since Kyoto there has been too many examples where key people in NGOs have fiercely opposed a bad policy, then trying to mitigate the consequences of the policy when they have been introduced, then after a while promoting the new mitigated policy and push for damage controls as “solutions”. Necessary tactics should not be turned into strategy.

4. Realize that the war is not over when the rhetoric change and symbols disappear
Looking at the cold war from a security perspective the war did not really end. We still live under a nuclear threat (“Fog of war” is a fantastic movie about this and one of the best documentaries made). If it was about personal freedom and human rights some significant gains were made, but we should not forgot that some were lost as well when one set or rulers took over after the other. So now when old companies start talking about a “low carbon future” and don’t use old industrial symbols in their marketing it is important to look at the actual investments and emissions.

5. Don’t try to win tomorrows battles with yesterdays weapons
Using simple macroeconomic models, growth targets and industrial job creation as tools to show the benefits of a post carbon economy can not be the dominating strategy. They can be used for tactical reasons, but a well thought though strategy must exist. The opportunities are enormous and the positive impacts of a decentralized smart energy and transport system is much bigger than just the reduced carbon. When even the Chinese government, the European commissions and Al Gore are talking about the problem with a GDP focus many people in NGOs are pushing harder than ever for Growth models (like the McKinsey abatement curve) and payment for environmental services (as a way of putting “value” on things that can not be measured). Using the web to build networks of low carbon innovators, applying non-linear models to understand different change scenarios, illustrating the transformation through interactive tools, implement new business models using a low carbon development as a driver for innovation/profit and build net producing buildings that demonstrate that the future is here are just a few of the tools at our disposal.

6. When winning, make sure you don’t lose
The collapse of the wall was the beginning of one of the least thoughtful and most narrow-minded reform projects ever. Experts without any understanding of the countries they where sent to “liberalize” the economies in a way that created some of the most corrupt and environmentally destructive countries on the planet. It also created instability that we still are suffering from. It is important that time is spent on developing the strategy for a post coal economy.

7. Put the challenge into context
Even if media have a problem to deal with complexities and focus on a few issues at the time that should not push those working with important questions in the same direction. Climate change has become a mainstream word (I remember being told that “climate change”, “CO2”, “transformative solutions”, etc would never make it into mass media as they where to technical and difficult for people outside the academia to understand. I get the same reaction when I ten years later try to push for “integrated solutions”, “planet positive”, “beyond happiness” and “innovation surfing” as key concepts. This Friday FAO estimated that 2009, for the first time in human history, more than one billion people will go hungry.

The climate challenge is related to the burning of fossil fuel, but it must be seen in the context of a society that it depending on wasteful consumption, the idea that everything has a price, a culture that lost connection with nature, an ethics that put people in the centre and the rest of the planet that is at our disposal, etc. Unless we do this we will win the battle, but lose the war.

8. Those claiming to be part of the solution can be part of the problem
Maybe the most controversial, but also one of the most important lessons, is that just because to engage in the issue and claim to be part of the solution that might not be true. Many of those claiming to support a low carbon development are not really doing so. The reason for this can be many, they can be so caught in internal power struggles that they focus on keeping their position regardless of direction, they might depend on funding sources that they are afraid to upset (often without ground); they might have a lack the intellectual capacity to understand both the challenges and the solutions, etc. The result is that they become more of problem than a solution. While formal education might not be the most important (but it does not hurt) experience, network and funding are things that are important, but more than anything transparency regarding, investments, goals and strategies.

The question is not if we will leave the fossil age, the question is when and how. A new generation will hopefully not do the same mistake as the old. And more than anything don’t think that a new generation will bring change just because of the fact that they are a new generation.

I end with two quotes.

First a quote from Time Magazine that dedicate their latest issue to 1989: “Americans today are consuming 2 million more barrels of oil a day than they did in 1989. ‘I was hoping for a huge shift in philosophy afterwards [Exxon Valdez],’ says Riki Ott, a biologist and fisherman from the sound who wrote a 2008 book on the spill entitled Not One Drop. ‘But it hasn't worked that way yet.’”

Second a quote from IHT (June 21st issue):
In the “In our pages” box, they reminded us of what happened 50 years ago by republishing an article that included this quote: “Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda, ordered that the vice-chancellor’s speech before the University of Marburg on Sunday [June 17] should not be reported in the press, because the man who by his own connection with President Von Hindenburg made it possible for Hitler to become chancellor was rash enough to stat publicly that ever critic was not necessarily a traitor”. When an organization is afraid of external criticism and new thoughts, it is time for those who don’t believe in authoritarianism to act.